Comment: As this year's election begins to roll over the horizon, one thing we will certainly hear from our esteemed politicians is dog whistle politics. But we're unlikely to hear about actual dog whistles. So never let it be said that I don't come at you with the very best political commentary: here's everything you never needed to know about dog whistles and more.
The dog whistle can be created in three ways. The first is by contorting the mouth so it can create the sharp blasts required. The second utilises two fingers – usually the index fingers or the pinkies – and also a reckless disregard for hygiene. The third, is the shepherd's whistle, which is an object that folds back on itself and has a hole in the centre. It rests on the top of the tongue and, like using your mouth alone, takes a heck of a lot of perfecting. But once you're there you have the cleanest dog whistle about. Akin to politicians talking about crime.
Dog whistles have a very long history in New Zealand. Moving millions of sheep about requires clever dogs, tireless stockmen and good whistles. And many moons ago, when political dog whistles were concerned by strange creatures in brightly coloured socks called bodgies and widgies, young country boys would cut small circles out of kerosene cans, fold them in half and nail a hole through both sides. Careful to avoid a good cut on the tongue, they'd blow and blow into their homemade whistles until a chirp was produced, and then among their mates they'd compete to see who could blow the loudest shrill.
Another nail hole allowed string to be threaded through the whistle so it could be hung around young necks. Like a lanyard at a Young Nats conference.
All stock whistles were metal back in the day, but increasingly they are plastic. The flash shepherd may even have a greenstone one but regardless there'll always be a few different ones knocking around the house or shed; although there is always one favourite. The one that sits in the mouth just so and creates the perfect pitch. The one that can change tone and volume with complete control. The one that, for whatever reason, the dog just responds to best. Again, like politicians talking crime.
Until yesterday, I had no idea there were two types of dogs used to herd animals – heading dogs (stealthy and silent) and huntaways (solid with a bark). But let's not get bogged down in dog details, this column is about the important topic of whistles; and of them there are four basic types.
The first whistle is a couple of pips and that "casts" the dog. Sends them on their way. Most dogs cast right, but the odd one wants to cast left and that causes consternation. Very similar to the National Party caucus of the Muldoon era with Marilyn Waring. And, for that matter, not too dissimilar to the fourth Labour Government that took over from them.
There's a whistle to stop, of course (scarcely ever used in politics), which is a straight sharp blast, and another couple to "come by" and to "come out"; pretty much left and right.
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The harder or more urgent you blow, the quicker or faster you want the dog to act. And here the whistle is often accompanied by verbal commands, "easy … easy, boy". And sometimes when the whistle doesn't work, the final command is delivered in bellowing vocals that engage rather salty Anglo-Saxon language. Like certain politicians when the cameras are off.
Regardless of the quality of whistle, or the skills of the craggy man or woman delivering it, there are some dogs who just don't listen. Some can't be taught. You cast them with a couple of your finest blasts and they'll just prance around the paddock having a whale of a time, ignoring all instructions - both whistle and cuss. And it's from these dogs we should take our lesson.
This election season, when we have the added fuel of two referenda, let's resist those politicians who bring out the dog whistle.
Dog whistle politics tend to target vulnerable groups or exploit or create public fear. That's not to say we shouldn't debate difficult issues – we absolutely should - but it's how we debate them that's important. Conversations should be about substance and not just votes.
With that in mind, let's do more than ignore politicians who reach for the whistles, let's channel our inner dog and bite the bastards on the ankles.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.